“You’ve got to pick up every stitch
Must be the season of the witch.”
Donovan Leitch, “Season of the Witch,”©1966
Pity the poor witch. Long-vilified in literature (Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”), folklore, and in films ranging from “The Wizard of Oz,” to “The Blair Witch Project,” those broomstick-riding, spell-casting sisters just can’t catch a break.
Why, in Romania (a country where a substantial percentage of the population still believes in witchcraft), the government even passed labor laws in 2011 that forced fortunetellers and self-proclaimed witches to pay income taxes.
Practitioners of the “dark arts” like Bratara Buzea spoke out against the law, and even threatened to cast spells on the offending lawmakers.
Witches don’t get any more respect in court, where apparently they’re not welcome as expert witnesses. In Manhattan’s State Supreme Court in New York recently, a defense attorney attempted to introduce “expert” testimony on witchcraft during the murder trial of 42-year-old Bakary Camara.
Mr. Camara, a Senegalese immigrant, is accused of killing ex-girlfriend Rita Morelli last fall; he pleaded not guilty, saying he was under the influence of evil spirits (psychiatrists have already ruled out Camara’s previous assertion that he was delusional during the killing).
Defense attorney Seema Iyer sought to introduce testimony from Cheikh Ndao—a self-described imam from Africa who claims to be an expert on Senegalese curses and witchcraft.
Prosecutors were skeptical of the man they called a “witch doctor,” and so was Justice Juan Merchan. He ruled that the defense had failed to demonstrate that Mr. Ndao satisfied the definition of an expert. Perhaps if he had turned the judge into a newt?
Yes, witches aren’t feeling the love in our courtrooms. Despite this, the descendants of some accused witches are turning to the legal system to seek formal exoneration for those executed for witchcraft during the 17th century.
Bernice Mable Graham Telian is one such person, seeking to clear the name of her ancestor Mary Barnes, who was hanged as a witch for “familiarity with Satan” in Connecticut in 1663. Connecticut executed 11 women for witchcraft between 1647 and 1663, and in fact witchcraft remained a capital crime until 1750.
Telian has been aided in her quest by the Connecticut Wiccan & Pagan Network. But she faces an uphill battle. Although the governor can issue a pardon for someone convicted of a crime (essentially removing or reducing the sentence that was imposed, but not reversing the conviction itself), Telian is seeking something more: a formal declaration that Mary Barnes was not a criminal.
In 2008, the Connecticut state legislature weighed a resolution that would have formally acknowledged victims of the witch trials, but the measure failed. Other activists have suggested that Gov. Dannel Malloy should issue a proclamation apologizing for the colonial-era executions and exonerating the convicted “witches.”
Three other New England states that executed women accused of witchcraft—Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont—have already formally acknowledged the injustice of these executions.
The most notorious, of course, took place in Massachusetts during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Nearly 200 people were accused of engaging in witchcraft or “consorting with the Devil” during the hysteria that swept Salem in the summer of 1692.
Twenty of those accused—15 women and 5 men—were executed; 19 were hanged, while octogenarian farmer Giles Cory was crushed to death for refusing to enter a plea. Another four of the accused, three women and one man, died in jail. One of the accused, a girl named Dorcas Good, was only four years old.
The accused were predominantly people who were perceived as outsiders by the rigid Puritan society. Sarah Good, for example, was a local beggar who rarely attended church. Sarah Osborne, one of the first women accused, had scandalized the village by having an affair (while unmarried) with an indentured servant from Ireland. Martha Cory was accused of being a witch after giving birth to an illegitimate biracial child.
A number of other residents of Salem were accused after expressing skepticism at the cries of witchcraft by the young girls who started the madness in the village. These included people like John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth, Susannah Martin, Sarah Cloyce, Dorcas Hoar and George Jacobs.
Many of the accusations were leveled by members of the Putnam family, who just months before had lost power in Salem after they and their supporters were replaced on the village’s governing committee. Eight members of the Putnam family were involved in the prosecution of about 50 accused witches.
Typically, these cases would begin with a formal complaint by a party allegedly injured by someone’s “witchcraft,” but any resemblance to our modern criminal proceedings ended there. Accused witches were presumed guilty, not afforded any right to legal counsel, and the magistrates and presiding judges would usually ask leading questions that presumed that acts of witchcraft had taken place.
And although juries were empaneled to consider guilt or innocence, on at least one occasion, a jury that had acquitted a defendant was ordered to “reconsider” their verdict; not surprisingly, the jury reversed itself.
The “evidence” presented was a joke: nine accused witches were convicted based on nothing more than testimony from an alleged victim who testified to having been visited during the night by a spectral figure who resembled the defendant. Others were convicted when they had difficulty reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Eventually, the hysteria died down. The Rev. Increase Mather, a respected clergyman from Harvard, questioned the reliability of the “evidence.” The trials, which had begun in June 1692, formally ended when Massachusetts Gov. William Phipps dissolved the presiding tribunal in October of that year. In spring 1693, Phipps ordered all of the remaining incarcerated accused witches released.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Bernice Telian seeks justice for Mary Barnes—even if it is nearly 450 years too late.